Is social media becoming more or less sociable?

March 4, 2010 by  
Filed under Blog

The murder of a Queensland schoolgirl, a video of a group of teenage boys in Italy taunting an autistic boy, a $30,000 defamation verdict and Lara Bingle have all combined in the last week or so to show that the world may at last be starting to catch up with social media.

The growth of social media over the past decade has been exponential, so much so that the legal and ethical restrictions that society has for virtually all other activities have struggled to seem relevant.

“The internet is different”, people cried, “Its very basis is the free exchange of information.”

Well, maybe.

A Victorian man posted an anonymous comment on HotCopper, a stock market discussion forum. The comment, about a WA technology security company and its managing director, was defamatory. The managing director tried to get HotCopper to identify the poster. HotCopper refused, but was forced to by a court order. The registered name ended up being false but the poster was eventually tracked down and taken to court for defamation – the result being the $30,000 verdict against him. Two other supposedly anonymous posters on the same site have court action pending against them.

The moral: a court has shown that anonymous is no longer anonymous, and the normal rules of law will apply to anything you say.

In Queensland an outpouring of grief over the murder of a young girl led to a tribute page being set up on Facebook. That page was defaced, with people posting insulting and derogatory remarks and links to porn sites.  The call was for Facebook to “do something”, with the general tenor being that Facebook and other sites should be responsible for the material they contain. But, as University of NSW Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre executive director David Vaile was quoted as saying on smh.com.au, making website owners or internet providers more accountable for online content would lead to their demise and see the end of free social networking sites.

The moral: administrators of Facebook pages need to be aware of their responsibilities. If you set up an open site then you should be able to moderate it – around the clock if necessary. If you can’t then either don’t set up the site or bring in reinforcements.

In Italy, the six month suspended jail sentences given to three Google executives has led to a further outcry. The executives were on trial for defamation and for violating Italy’s privacy laws. The trio were found guilty of the privacy charges in that they were held responsible for Google having hosted the offensive video. The video was online for around two months but was taken down as soon as Google was informed of its contents.

Google announced it would appeal, saying the ruling “attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built.”

Google said the European Union law gave hosting providers “a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence…  If that principle is swept aside and sites like Blogger, YouTube and indeed every social network and any community bulletin board, are held responsible for vetting every single piece of content that is uploaded to them — every piece of text, every photo, every file, every video — then the Web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear.“

Well, again maybe.

It would certainly create havoc with the Google business model, but perhaps that’s what the judge was getting at. The reasons for the decision have yet to be published but Marc Rotenberg, writing in the Huffington Post, says that there seem to be similarities between this case and cases in the early 1900s which established a person’s right to privacy in the US. Those cases established that a person’s image could not be used for commercial purposes without their permission. Rotenberg says that the Italian case hinged on the prosecutor’s claim that Google was making profit out of the video, which was driving people to the site and its advertisers.

The moral: not certain yet, but it may well be that if you are making money by hosting advertisements on site then you may end up being viewed as a commercial operation rather than just a host.

And to finish with Lara Bingle, the social page habitué who announced that she was taking legal action against AFL player Brendan Fevola after a nude image of her was made public on a website and in a magazine. The picture shows Bingle naked in a shower trying to cover herself.

Bingle is taking action “for breach of privacy, defamation and misuse of her image.” Just what that will result in is anyone’s guess, but it could end up a cautionary tale about mobile phone cameras, ease of downloading and the relentless spread of the web.

The moral: be careful of the company you keep.

By Sam North.

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